Condor conversation

ktanner@thetribunenews.comJune 7, 2012 

Did we really see a California condor soaring over our Cambria meadow? Maybe. The huge endangered birds have been seen in this area recently, and what’s more, they’re apparently finding the North Coast all on their own.

We can identify bird size is pretty easily because the skyline view from our Top of the World house includes tall trees that serve as measurement goalposts when the birds fly between them.

We often see other big birds here — hawks, turkey vultures, even a golden eagle. But what we saw in early May made all those seem like avian Matchbox Toys.

This massive black bird had a huge wingspan. Without ever flapping those wings, it swooped down slightly over our meadow and soared over the tops of the tall eucalyptus and pines that border our fence line.

Using precision flight control and momentum combined with lift from air currents, the bird flew over Strawberry Canyon and Rancho Marino toward the sea.

Condor? Maybe.

In April, dedicated bird watcher Earl Moon, Hearst Castle’s water guy, saw three or four condors playing among the thermals above the Castle.

A biologist photographed a condor near Diablo Canyon May 7.

Other possible sightings have been reported recently in this area, according to Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Society, which oversees condor recovery areas in Big Sur and at the Pinnacles National Monument.

California currently is home to two separate California condor flocks: The Central Coast flock, located around Big Sur and Pinnacles National Monument, and the Southern California flock at Hopper Mountain near Ventura and in and around Los Angeles.

The National Parks Conservation Association (www.npca.org) says 10,000 years ago, the condors lived along most of both U.S. coasts, but by about 1900, the population was limited to southern California.

Condors were nearly extinct by 1982, when the population had plummeted to 22 condors, according to according to Sorenson. The decline of the species likely was due to lead poisoning from spent ammunition, loss of habitat, shooting, poisoning, egg collecting and a low reproductive rate.

The society has been releasing zoo-hatched, human-raised condors into the wilds of Big Sur since 1996 and at Pinnacles since 2004.

As of April 30, the worldwide population of the critically endangered big birds was 405, Sorenson said, with 226 of those in the wild and about half of those in the Central California area.

Scientists believe human-caused problems still threaten the condors. Residual DDT, ingestion of microtrash, and collisions with power lines and wind turbines all could have impacts, possibly fatal ones, Sorenson said.

But knowing all that and actually seeing a condor in your own back yard are two entirely different things.

I carefully described what we’d seen — the bird’s size and black color, the straight leading edge of its wings, the lack of flapping. No, we hadn’t seen telltale white patches under the wings, but we didn’t see the bird’s underside at all. After consideration, Sorenson said, “It sounds like a condor.”

Such a coastal foray has been unusual for condors, which usually fly along an inland route between the Central and Southern California nesting areas, he said. “I don’t think since the reintroduction program began that we’ve had many sightings on that part of the coast.” To have had multiple sightings is “perhaps a first and it’s very exciting.”

“Condors are beginning to frequent Cambria, Morro Bay and other areas south, nearby, which were historically important for the birds,” Sorenson wrote in a May 25 email, but they’re apparently rediscovering this territory all on their own.

Sorenson said, “We do think we’ll see more and more condors down your way over time … A lot of these are non-breeding adults or subadults, fully capable of flying 150 miles in a day. They’re smart, strong and they know their landscape. They just haven’t found mates or settled down yet.”

Condors can live to be more than 50 years old, but what really sets them apart from other birds, Sorenson said, is size and “they’re very social. They roost together, feed together, do most everything in pairs or groups. They even preen each other,” which is very unusual birdy behavior.

They spend about 18 months raising their young, also uncommon for birds.

Some of the birds have GPS tracking devices, and many have ID tags, as did one of the condors Moon saw and photographed April 18.

That day, “strong offshore winds were blowing, and a bunch of thermals were working off the canyons,” Moon recalled. He saw about 25 turkey vultures, a red-tailed hawk and perhaps four condors, maybe more. “It was hard to count them.”

That’s not a first: About two years ago, Moon saw an immature condor flying over the access road to the Castle.

So, was our big bird a condor? We think so. Sorenson thinks so. But none of us will ever know for sure.

That’s OK. It was astonishingly spectacular, whatever it was, and gave us one more magical moment in paradise.

* * *

Vulture? Or condor?

Telltale traits for differentiating between condors and, say, turkey vultures, golden eagles or hawks are: Size (condor wingspans are as long as 9 to 10 feet); color (adult condors are black with distinctive white wedge-shaped stripes on their wings' undersides); wing shape (the leading edge of a condor wing is straight, a turkey vulture's has a slight bend in it, and a golden eagle’s is slightly curved) and a flight path that includes little or no flapping of wings. Did you see a condor? Learn more at http://cacondorconservation.org/did-you-see-a-california-condor-let-us-know/.

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